Kansas City, Mo. Even though she's been a Life Flight nurse for six years, Paula Springer says her heart still stops when a call comes in.
Thursday morning, Springer was one of two medical crew members aboard the Spirit of Kansas City Life Flight transporting a comatose cardiac patient from Ransom Memorial Hospital in Ottawa to Humana Hospital in Overland Park. The call for Life Flight came in at 9:58 a.m.; by 12:31 p.m., the helicopter had completed the 39-mile trip and returned to its landing pad at St. Joseph Health Center in Kansas City, Mo.
A joint venture begun in 1978 by St. Joseph and St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., Life Flight handles most helicopter transports from Lawrence Memorial Hospital, as well as other hospitals in the region.
"EVERY TIME the pager goes off, your heart stops and your head goes down," said Springer, one of several nurses who battles time and tight space aboard the aircraft.
Nevertheless, she said, the challenges and stress of being a flight nurse are what she loves about her job. "It's something I always wanted to do."
The crew follow medical guidelines but also must make split-second decisions.
"It's a lot more of an independent practice," Springer said, "so from that standpoint, it's a lot more stressful."
The helicopter is equipped with emergency medical equipment and supplies, including blood pressure and cardiac monitors, fluids and medications.
PATIENTS ARE placed on a stretcher on one side of the helicopter's cabin. The medical crew a flight nurse and respiratory therapist who also serves as a paramedic maneuver around the small cabin.
"Basically it's a mobile ICU," noted Todd Davis, the repiratory therapist and paramedic who worked on board Thursday. "It's a very fast ambulance."
The normal cruising speed for the aircraft is 120 mph.
Getting to Lawrence Memorial Hospital takes about 14 minutes from St. Joseph, which keeps two helicopters on hand, and about 14 minutes from St. Luke's, where one helicopter is available.
Mindy Mitchell, associate executive director-nursing at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said LMH uses Life Flight for most of its helicopter transfers and occasionally uses two similar services, Research Eagle, also based in the Kansas City area, and Life Star of Topeka.
ACCORDING TO Mitchell, any decision to transport a patient by helicopter to another hospital is made by attending physicians. Most patients who are transferred from LMH to another hospital are either in the emergency room, the intensive care unit or the mother-baby unit, she said.
Michel Holt, flight nurse coordinator for Life Flight, said that roughly 80 percent of their calls are hospital transfers. During 1991, Life Flight made 26 flights to LMH, she said.
The Life Flight crew also responds directly to accident scenes.
In most cases, Holt noted, patients' insurance companies are billed for the flight.
During Thursday morning's transport from Ransom to Humana, Joe Larson, a Life Flight communications controller, monitored the crew's whereabouts and estimated arrival time at the suburban Kansas City hospital.
Larson said his role was to keep in contact with the crew.
"WE KEEP TRACK of where they're at in case of emergency," Larson explained. "That's called `flight following.' We also make a lot of phone calls for them." As communications controller, Larson lets hospitals scheduled to receive a Life Flight patient know estimated arrival times, for example.
When a call for Life Flight comes in, Larson gets basic information about the patient and, if the weather is questionable, he checks with the pilot to ensure a flight is possible.
Flight nurse coordinator Holt said Life Flight averages two to three flights a day with 120 flights the most ever recorded in a month's time. She added the service is busiest in summertime.
In 14 years, though, there have been no accidents.
"A lot of time," Holt said, "it's feast or famine."